Defining the new office suite: 5 essential apps for work

With each new era of computing, the mix of software titles that we find essential in our day-to-day jobs changes.  In the early days, the “big three” were WordPerfect, Lotus and dBase: a word processor, spreadsheet and database application.  As time evolved, things got a little more graphical and changed into Microsoft’s(s MSFT) Word, Excel and Power Point.  As we transition away from the paradigm of having a single personal computer at work and carry multiple mobile devices, where we can use technology may not matter as much as what we are using it for.


With the adoption of iPads, tablets and smartphones into our work flow instead of just sitting at a laptop computer, what apps are will become essential? The following  five categories of apps are positioned well for becoming a fundamental part of our day-to-day work environment in this mobile and cloud-based era:

Drafting new ideas and communications

BywordCapturing our ideas in text through typing will continue to remain a core aspect of the tools we utilize every day at work.  But it’s not really traditional word processing.  More and more, what people are doing with “captured words” is posting them on internal and external company blogs, tweets and status updates.  Cutting and pasting from a Microsoft Word document into any one of these communication streams is painful at times because you lose most of your formatting in the process.

What we don’t need is all of the fancy markup features available in today’s word processing applications: charts, tables, graphs, multimedia, and everything else that can be utilized in creating a polished final document.  Markdown, a text formatting syntax created by John Gruber and inspired by marking up plain-text email, combined with a simple text editor keeps one focused on the words.

With an app like Byword ($2.99 Universal, $4.99 Mac), users can focus more on what is being said.  And with omnipresent character and word counters, you can get your meaning across with fewer words.  With the ability to export paragraphs, phrases and even entire documents of text to formats that are readily consumed by today’s online publishing forms like Twitter, WordPress and Facebook(s FB), apps like Byword return us to a much simpler world where we type with fewer distractions.  Elements ($4.99 Universal) by Second Gear is another popular app in this category, but is currently missing a Mac counterpart to make the iCloud integration complete.

Adding structure to your thoughts

MindNodeCapturing your ideas can be a daunting task if all you have is pencil and paper.  You quickly realize that your mind is not that organized.  The technique of mind mapping isn’t new, but it’s an effective tool. You typically start out with a single word and start linking it to related words in a hub and spoke fashion.  Each new word can become the center of a new idea and have a collection of related words attached to it. And you never know when inspiration is going to strike you.  Having access to all of your best ideas and a mobile device to note it on wherever you are is just one of the ways things are changing.

FreeMind is an open-source mind mapping utility whose XML file format has become the standard to which all mind mapping tools have adopted.  MindNode ($9.99 Universal, $9.99 Mac) has the ability to export your thought to this format, as well as an image file, PDF document, and even a textual outline.  Its not just brain storming sessions that you can use MindNode for.  It also works great to start outlining how business divisions or computer systems are related to one another, creating task lists for entire teams broken down into subcategories, and even making plans for upcoming events.  SimpleMind ($6.99 Universal, $29.99 Mac) by ModelMaker Tools is another popular app in this category, but is currently missing iCloud and Retina display support on the Mac.

Communicate with a sketch or drawing

SketchBookThe popularity of the social game Draw Something is a good indication that people enjoy casual drawings as a way to communicate with one another.  We have conference room whiteboards, bar napkins and scratch pads to quickly capture and communicate an idea.  But there are better ways of doing this and then sharing with colleagues online.

I have experimented with several different drawing apps and have found the integration between iPhone, iPad and Mac that is offered by Autodesk’s new release of SketchBook ($1.99 iPhone, $1.99 iPad, $29.99 Mac) to be exactly what I have been wanting.  The choice of pens, brushes and markers as well as being able to quickly switch colors is very easy to navigate.  The responsiveness of the user interface allows me to quickly capture a simple diagram, or outline a basic idea very quickly.  What I have used prior to this was GreenGar Studio’s Whiteboard ($0.99 Universal, $0.99 Mac), which has an even simpler interface and is more geared toward collaboration than detail.

Photo optimizing scanners

JotNotThere are still times when group collaboration is best facilitated with whiteboards and dry erase markers in crowded meeting rooms.  However, once a meeting is over, it seems there’s always someone waiting to occupy the room you were just using.  Almost everyone has a camera with them and fairly often you’ll see people quickly capturing the contents of a whiteboard with their camera as meetings come to an end.  The problem is that the lighting of conference rooms is not great, and to avoid glare, you have to take your photos at an angle.  That is where photo enhancing apps like JotNot ($1.99 Universal) come in to play.  These apps take photos of whiteboards, documents and receipts, straightens them out, and optimizes them through the settings of various filters.  Related photos can be collected into documents and saved as PDF files for later review.  Scanner Pro ($6.99 Universal) by Readdle is another popular choice in this category.

Hand written notes

NoteTakerIt is not so much as being a free-form note taking app as it is more about the way that NoteTaker ($1.99 iPhone, $4.99 iPad) captures your handwriting on a mobile device.  While you can use your finger, more and more people are finding a stylus one of the must-have accessories for their iPad (taking two positions in Amazon’s top 20 best sellers in touchscreen tablet accessories). Magnifying a particular area of a page, NoteTaker captures your handwriting in this area, and has a way to automatically advance forward on the line and even to the next line so you can just keep on writing.

Another great feature is the introduction of a hand guard that keeps your wrists from messing up the notes you are taking.  Capturing your handwriting in its original form adds value and makes the notes you take more personal.  Notability ($0.99 Universal) by Ginger Labs can also record voice memos, but lacks some of the more advanced shape tools included with NoteTaker.

While I do agree that today’s smartphones and tablets are not always creating polished documents, complicated spreadsheets, and boardroom-ready Power Point presentation, I do not agree that they are not being utilized to create.  As we transition through this new paradigm, we will utilize technology in very different ways.  In the end, the question being asked is which app, or apps, are to become an essential part of how we work every day.

Each of the five use cases above are good candidates for replacing any one of today’s three designated essential office apps.  As to which of the three is most likely to be replaced; honestly, I do not use spreadsheets every day.  But how I work isn’t the same as everyone else. Which apps do you think will become essential for everyday app for business?